Comment »Posted on Tuesday 21 October 2008 at 9:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Last night Channel 4 broadcast Extraordinary Animals in the Womb, a sequel to last years plain-old Animals in the Womb, in which the reproductive process of dolphins, elephants and dogs were investigated in detail. This time it’s the turn of sharks, penguins, kangaroos and wasps.

Using a combination of real footage, computer generated imagery, and good ol’ fashioned models, the film tracks the baby animals from conception to birth. The effect is stunning; you feel like you’ve somehow gained x-ray vision and the ability to see directly into the animals’ wombs.

The animals really are extraordinary. They might well have chosen to call the documentary “Aren’t Animals Pretty Damn Amazing?” – that’s how I felt as I watched. We learn that male sharks shoot “sperm bullets” into the female to impregnate her, and the fetuses eat their unborn brothers and sisters in order to survive in the womb. Kangaroos leave the womb after just a few weeks gestation and crawl up to their mothers pouch, where they will suckle for 6 months as they continue to develop. The male penguin incubates the egg, not the female, who must return to the sea after the stress of laying.

The fascinating facts pour thick and fast, but it’s never too much to take in. What some might find too much, however, is the parasitical wasp. This nasty little creature lays its eggs in an unsuspecting caterpillar, and when the larvae develop they eat their way out of the poor thing whilst it is still alive. It’s a genuine “watching through your fingers” moment. What’s worse, a “biological weapon” in the form of a virus originating from the wasp’s DNA rewrites the caterpillars brain, and it actually sticks around to help it’s unwelcome guests as they transform in cocoons.

As the program tells us, when Charles Darwin found out the lifecycle of these wasps, it shook his belief in a benevolent God. They were also (unsurprisingly) the inspiration for the movie Alien. The narrator is quick to point out however that “nature is morally blind”, and these reproduction strategies exist simply because “they work”.

Initially the film roars along, with “24″ style transitions between the four species’ storylines (sorry, no Jack Bauer though) and intriguing hooks that keep bringing you back for more after the ad breaks. Unfortunately, past the hour mark I began to feel things were a little dragged out – a shame, as I thoroughly enjoyed it for the most part.

It’s available to watch online until November 20th, so if you have a spare hour or so, I definitely recommended it. Just be prepared for a slightly meandering ending, and watch out for parasitical wasps!

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